Quiet spot for Queen of Crime

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By John Keast

It is a small granite headstone: Edith Ngaio Marsh.

It says nothing of the greatness of the person, the Queen of Crime, Dame Ngaio Marsh.

Dame Ngaio died on February 18, 1982 after a heart attack two years earlier.

She had been confined to her home in Valley Road, Cashmere, in Christchurch.

Now her ashes, a fact perhaps not widely known, are in the beautiful church at the Church of the Holy Innocents at Mt Peel Station, up the Rangitata Gorge.

The station is owned by the Acland family, and Dame Ngaio asked the Rev Simon Acland to conduct the service at Christchurch Cathedral.

Such was her fame, the service was broadcast on Radio New Zealand.

The cathedral was packed and, later, a small group took her ashes to be buried in the graveyard on a rise overlooking the grandeur of the Rangitata.

The Rev Acland said: “There are three things I would bring before you, the confidence with which we can commend Ngaio Marsh to God’s hearth and keeping: Ngaio the person and the public figure, that she undoubtedly was. Ngaio Marsh was essentially a very private person, that so many are here and so many throughout the world mourn her dying shows that there was a very public aspect of her life.”

Dame Ngaio was possibly not as well known as her fellow English crime queen, Agatha Christie, but she was regarded by some as the better writer.

An obituary in the Daily Telegraph said: “Unfairly perhaps, Dame Ngaio was always the slightly junior partner in the dual monarchy of Christie and Marsh. Certainly, Dame Agatha was the more ingenious maker of plots, but Dame Ngaio was always the better writer.”

Dame Ngaio died just weeks after submitting her 32nd detective novel, the chief player, as ever, Detective Roderick Alleyn and several novels also feature her other love, theatre.

Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in Christchurch on April 23, 1895, and died there on February 18, 1982, having been made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1966.

She was known internationally, primarily for her gentleman detective, Roderick Alleyn of the Metropolitan Police.

In her heyday, Dame Ngaio was ranked alongside writers such as Dorothy L Sayers, Christie and Margery Allingham.

While writing was her love, theatre was her passion. In 1942 she produced a modern-dress Hamlet for the Canterbury University College Drama Society, the first of many Shakespearean productions.

In 1972 she was invited by the Christchurch City Council to direct Henry V, the inaugural production for the opening of the new James Hay Theatre in Christchurch.

Marsh never married and had no children.

In 1965 she published an autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew.

The Rev Acland in his service said he could recall helping Dame Ngaio in her Valley Road garden when he was a boy “making small streams down the hillside to water plants”.

“I was convinced that she was the same age as I was; in fact, I was four and she was in her 40s. This experience of being a contemporary is shared by many.

“It doesn’t surprise me that her neighbour’s small children came home with flowers on Saturday, weeping at the death of a friend.”

Rev Acland said that publicly Dame Ngaio was a great person,

“Privately, I believe she was an even greater one.”

* The Courier acknowledge support from NZ History, New Zealand history online and other online resources.